One of the hazards of bearing a baby bump is the avalanche of advice on how best to raise your children. Friends and strangers suddenly feel the impulse to touch you without warning and share harrowing stories of traumatic birth experiences. And they always want to know, “Are you going back to work?”
For some mothers, this choice is easy, and their circumstances and desires align. For others, “choice” is dictated by circumstance. For many, this question is not simple, the answer is not apparent, their desires conflict, and the matter is never fully settled.
Beyond Mom Guilt
Beyond the traditional scope of nosy friends and extended family, the connectivity of social media amplifies the chorus of unsolicited opinions on motherhood, adding to the already complex mix of emotions that mothers experience. Stay-at-home moms feel insecure, as though the work they do in the home is somehow less of a gift to the world than the work of employed moms who manage to “do it all.” Moms who work (either by choice or necessity) are subject to feelings of guilt, wondering if they do their children a disservice by concentrating their efforts outside the home.
These guilty feelings don’t just affect working moms, either. “Mom guilt” is common to us all: mothers who work from home, stay-at-home moms who channel energy into their own projects, and every mother who has felt the need to explore pursuits outside of care for her children. To some degree, all mothers feel the internal tug-of-war between giving of themselves to the world and giving of themselves to their children.
These internal conflicts stem from an erroneous belief in the “just a mom” myth. Somewhere along the way, stay-at-home moms and employed moms alike bought into the lie that there is such a thing as “just a mom.” Intellectually, we deny it, but if we unpack our feelings of guilt, or our relief when someone calls out the exhausting spectrum of conflicting expectations we face, we find this myth at the center.
No mother is “just a mom,” and all moms do important work. The idea that anyone can be “just a mom” is a myth because, although relationship is essential for our self-understanding as human beings, it is neither possible nor healthy to define ourselves solely through relationships. There can be no such thing as “just a mom,” because the identity of a woman encompasses much more.
Vocation and Identity
Motherhood is one aspect of a more expansive vocational call: the call to marriage. To fulfill the primary aspect of their vocation, mothers must relate to their husbands first as wives and partners. The call to be mother of her husband’s children is a subordinate call, one present in some marriages but certainly not an essential aspect of the Sacrament, as many couples live out the call to generativity in ways other than parenthood.
More fundamentally, though, every woman has an identity that exists prior to and independently of her familial relationships. This identity is not subservient to motherhood. Rather, the relationship between motherhood and a woman’s identity is reciprocal. Being a complete self is what allows a mother to offer self-gift in motherhood, and her motherhood in turn shapes her identity. Mothers who feel called to meaning, service, and creation beyond their children need not suffer guilt; these desires are part of who they are and the life God wants to live in them. This call is in the heart of every woman, regardless of her status as mother or employee. The vocation of a woman ought to expand beyond motherhood, because motherhood never fully expresses the God-given call of a woman.
There are seasons, like the newborn season of early motherhood, when it can feel like one is “just a mom.” As the intensity of needs lessens, the landscape of motherhood changes. Focus shifts, and other aspects of self return to view, like the changing shapes in a kaleidoscope that shift as it moves. You may not see everything all at once, but it is always present.
A Beautiful Balance
Understanding that motherhood is an aspect of a woman’s vocation rather than its totality sheds light on the working mom “dilemma.” This perspective allows us to see that a mother’s employment is a practical matter of how she is to live out her identity and vocation. It can only be discerned by the woman and her family, through the virtue of prudence and in light of their present circumstances. The ages and temperament of the children, fiscal and psychological factors, availability of familial and social support, and demands of the job are just some of the variables couples must account for in their discernment.
There is a tendency among some to relativize this discussion, to speak as though all choices are equal and the self-actualization of the mother or her feelings of fulfillment are the bottom line. This is a lie. Likewise is the claim that mothers are called to forgo service to the world outside their homes and families. Neither extreme is sufficient to express what God has created in women. The wisdom that comes with motherhood and the feminine genius more broadly are essential in every realm of public life.
Still, no one can deny that mothers are fundamentally important in their children’s lives and that children’s presence brings deep joy to their mothers. When discerning how best to structure a family and raise children, the fundamental question couples must ask is this: Given these particular circumstances, what is in the best interest of our children, and what are the resources that we as a couple have to provide it? Is it best for children to have one stay-at-home parent if it means the other must be away on business trips, deployed, or on-call? Is it better to maximize the time children have with both parents, even if it means that both parents work outside the home? These questions are best left to the prudential judgment of the parents, who can prayerfully offer the matter to the Holy Spirit and be creative in using their resources well. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, because each man, woman, and child is unique and has his or her own call from God.
We need to spend less time making prescriptions for other families and more time reveling in the joy of caring for our own. When that joy bubbles over to other work (paid or not), and when that other work allows us to return to our families more ourselves, with more to give, we know that we have found a beautiful balance.
An Essential Aspect?
Let’s not forget that there are some cases in which no choice exists. The same kinds of options are not available to all families. Single-parent families and families in poverty face these decisions with a limited degree of freedom. Not all of us have skills or opportunities that allow us to work from home, and even that setup poses challenges in finding balance and being present.
In ethics, a basic principle is that ought implies can. Something can be obligatory only if it is first possible; we cannot have a responsibility to do what is not possible. The case of a single mother shows that there is at least one circumstance in which it is not possible for a mother to properly care for her children without working. Thus, abstaining from work cannot be an essential aspect of motherhood. Whether it is an ideal aspect of motherhood is a question for discernment.
This principle also shows us that no one has the responsibility to be “just a mom,” as though relationships have the ability to dampen all other facets of our identity. No, these relationships make a mother more herself, help her to grow in virtue, and enhance her gifts and capability of giving to the world.
If we need further confirmation, we can look to the examples of Sts. Zélie Martin and Gianna Molla, Servant of God Dorothy Day, and the many queen saints whose royal duties required much of their attention. All were women whose endeavors beyond motherhood powerfully impacted the world and their families. Of course, if their example is not enough, we can always look for biblical wisdom on the subject. As we see in Proverbs 31, the ideal wife is one who counsels her husband, cares for her home, raises her children, and turns a profit. Scripture recognizes the work that mothers do in and out of the home as holy.
Leaving an Imprint
Women need to let go of the pressure we feel for our motherhood to resemble anyone else’s and the temptation to think that theirs must looks like ours in order for our own to be validated. Do adjustments need to be made? Maybe, but that is for a wife and her husband to decide based on their resources and needs in the here and now.
Guilt might indeed be warranted if we allow lesser things to eclipse the call to serve our spouses and children with the attentiveness that is appropriate to our vocational call. A mother need not be employed to cross this boundary, a boundary akin to placing something idolatrously before God. All of us share in the struggle to balance and prioritize our lives rightly. St. Ignatius of Loyola recognized that more often than being tempted to obvious evils, souls seeking God experience “temptations of apparent goods.” Even good actions attended to with holy desires can become idols if they come before God or hurt our relationships.
Will we make mistakes? Absolutely. But they are ours to make, as well as to humbly correct. Families must honestly assess their lives, experiences, and needs on an ongoing basis. The needs of families are dynamic, as are the resources available to meet them. It is not only employed mothers who feel a sense of burnout trying to keep up with the frenetic pace of our culture. Fathers and mothers (employed or not) can become overwhelmed by all sorts of commitments outside their families. Ongoing discernment is necessary to maintain fidelity to our vocational calls in various aspects throughout our lives; employment is merely one dimension of our response.
We have all been given hands to do God’s work, each finger crafted with an unrepeatable set of swirls that leaves its imprint on the world. How much more so are the tiniest details of our souls capable of loving our children and the world in their own singularity.